Strong light

View of natural sea arch from sea cave, Praia de Albandeira, Algarve, Portugal. Nikon D850, 24-70mm, 61sec at f/14, ISO 100. Credit: Tom Mackie

I remember the days when Mr Kodak gave instructions with every roll of film to always place the sun at your back to produce correctly exposed images. While they may be correctly exposed, this would also produce flat and boring photos. It was suggested to never photograph into the sun because the strong light would be far too much for film to cope with. When handled correctly though, strong light can produce some amazing results.

Photography has come a long way since then and digital sensors are capable of handling 14 stops of light as opposed to 5 stops in the days of transparency film. Whilst the principles are the same, we have so much more control now. The key is to understand how to handle harsh lighting situations to create dramatic images. We’ve all heard that it’s best to photograph at either ends of the day for the best light, but don’t put your camera away when the sun is high in the sky because you’ll be missing out on so many more great photo possibilities. Using a polarising filter will help to darken the blue sky and make those clouds pop out, as well as remove glare and reflections from foliage, water and buildings thus increasing colour saturation. The bright highlights of rocky coastlines and white buildings can often run the risk of burning out in strong lighting conditions, but using a polariser will help to control the light. It’s especially useful at midday in tropical coast locations when the sun penetrates the water reflecting off a sandy ocean floor. A polariser will remove the reflections on the surface of the water allowing the turquoise colour to come through.

Strong light window

La Placita window, Tucson, Arizona, shot in the midday sun. Pentax 6×7, 200mm, 1/60sec at f/11, Fuji Velvia. Credit: Tom Mackie

I often use a polariser along with a neutral density (ND) filter, especially when photographing along the coast, in order to slow the exposure down to create a misty water effect. Of course, you’ll need to mount your camera on a tripod to execute this technique. If there are any clouds present I use a long enough exposure to get some movement in them. It’s ideal when the clouds are moving towards the camera to create an explosive sky effect emanating from the centre of the frame. Which ND filter you use depends on the time of day. I use the LEE Super Stopper (15 stops) when the sun’s intensity is the strongest, enabling exposures of several minutes. I wouldn’t recommend using this at any other time or your exposures would be hours, if not days, long! The LEE Big Stopper (10 stops) is perfect for shooting when light levels are lower in the morning or afternoon depending on the length of exposure you desire. The LEE Little Stopper (6 stops) is great for low light or when you only need an exposure of a few seconds.

Strong light use of shadows

Sunburst through autumn beech trees, Thetford Forest, Norfolk, UK. Nikon D800, 14-24mm, 1/15sec at f/11, ISO 100. Credit: Tom Mackie

Silhouettes and shadows

I love photographing straight into the sun as it creates strong, graphic images. A bit of care needs to be taken though, for several reasons. First, it’s best when the sun is low in the sky. I normally try to hide the sun behind something so it’s just creeping out to create a sunburst. A wideangle focal length will work the best for this. The size of the sunburst is determined by your aperture size – f/22 will elongate the points more than, say, f/11. It’s a personal choice dependant on the effect you desire. When the sun is low in the sky, it creates strong silhouettes, but make sure your subject has a distinctive, recognisable shape and it doesn’t merge with other elements otherwise it becomes a big, black blob. The shadows cast from your subject can often be used as a compositional tool to lead the viewer into the scene, and a wideangle lens will accomplish this for the best effect. I often use this technique in forests with tree shadows, but make sure your trees are evenly separated otherwise the composition can look too cluttered. Finally, make sure you compensate for shooting into the sun by increasing your exposure by at least 1 stop, as your camera’s meter will want to underexpose the image.

Strong light cloudscape

Cloudscape over Callanish Stones, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, UK. Nikon D800, 24-70mm, 138sec at f/16, ISO 100. Credit: Tom Mackie

Make it monochrome

I always say, ‘If you don’t have the light, make it black & white.’ But even when the sun is high you can create images with impact. When there isn’t any distraction from colour, the scene relies on line, shape, texture, light and shadow. I switch my camera display to monochrome – in the settings under picture control or style – so I can see how the tones will work in black & white. Then I process the raw file in Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2.

Strong light nd filters

Cottage by the bay, County Donegal, Ireland. Nikon D850, 24-70mm, 567sec at f/18, ISO 200. Credit: Tom Mackie

HDR for extremes

When lighting conditions are extremely harsh, it can be difficult to cope with the wide exposure latitudes presented by the scene. One way to combat this is to create multiple images, exposing for the highlights, midtones and shadows and then combine them using Lightroom or the processing software of your choice. As I use the Nikon D850 with its wide latitude sensor, I find that I seldom need to do this as I can control the exposure range of a strongly lit scene by exposing for the highlights and then lighten the shadows in post processing. So the next time you are confronted with harsh lighting, either at home or away, keep your camera at the ready and consider trying some of these simple techniques to create images with instant impact.

Strong light why it works

Credit: Tom Mackie

Why it works

Photographing in harsh sunlight normally produces flat, boring images, but when I was in the Caribbean I shot this Divi Divi tree under the strong, midday sun. I had no idea it would turn out to be my bestselling image, appearing in magazines, cards, calendars, puzzles and in IKEA as a canvas print for five years. I actually photographed it at sunrise and sunset as well, but neither image produced the appeal this one has. I used a Fujifilm GX619 panoramic camera with Velvia to create deep, saturated colours. A polariser provided the finishing touch by removing the glare on the surface of the water allowing the turquoise colour to come through. It also darkened down the blue sky giving a contrast to the white clouds that seemingly emanate from the tree.

Tom’s tips for shooting in harsh light

Strong light shadows

Credit: Tom Mackie

Use shadows creatively

Shadows can often be distracting, but you can use them to your advantage. They can add depth to your photo and act as leading lines to direct the viewer through the photo, especially when using a wideangle lens.

Strong light ND filter

Credit: Tom Mackie

Slow it down

An ND filter is great for getting rid of people from a busy beach as I did here in Carmel Bay, California. I used a 1-minute exposure to give the sunlit beach a softer look and the people walking along the beach disappeared.

Strong light silhouettes

Credit: Tom Mackie

Striking silhouettes

Shooting into the sun can produce graphic results. Select a definable subject and try not to merge different elements together. Place the sun behind your subject and have it peek out using a small aperture to create a sunburst.

Strong light black and white

Credit: Tom Mackie

Make it black & white

Without colour the emphasis is on line, shape, texture, light and shadow. Switch your camera to monochrome in the menu to visualise the tones of the scene in black & white. As you’re shooting in raw, you can convert the file later.

Strong light HDR

Credit: Tom Mackie

Try High Dynamic Range

There are occasions when the light is so strong that it’s necessary to combine exposures, such as with this image of a slot canyon. Exposing for the sky, midtones and shadows enabled me to combine all three images in post.

Kit list

  • Tripod It’s essential to mount your camera on a sturdy tripod when using long exposures with ND filters, and when making multiple exposures for blending HDRs. It will also improve your photography overall.
  • Filter holder A filter holder is needed to properly attach a Neutral Density filter for creating long exposures. The LEE holder will allow a polarising filter and an ND filter to be used together, which can be useful.
  • ND filter A Neutral Density filter will allow long exposures in harsh lighting conditions by reducing the light that reaches the sensor. These filters come in various densities ranging from 1 to 15 stops.
  • Polariser A polariser helps to reduce the glare that harsh light produces on subjects, and increase the saturation to make colours pop. It will also remove reflections on water surfaces to allow the colour to come through.
  • Wideangle lens A wideangle lens is essential for landscape photographers. It allows you to include more of your subject, and to use strong shadows and clouds as compositional aids.

Tom Mackie has pursued a lifelong career as a landscape photographer and is one of the world’s leading practitioners of the art. His work is featured in a number of books including The World’s Top Photographers: Landscape. Tom leads workshops in the UK and abroad.